The Sikh U.S. Army captain in a legal battle for the right to keep his beard and turban got a favorable federal ruling on a smaller issue Thursday night.
Federal District Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled the Army could no longer impose extra testing on Simratpal Singh while litigation is ongoing. Singh’s legal team had complained in a lawsuit about extra evaluations for his mask and helmet fit, calling them “discriminatory” and not “even remotely comparable” to how soldiers in similar cases have been treated.
“Getting a court order against the Army is huge—it almost never happens,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Singh, said in a statement. “It goes to show just how egregious the Army’s discrimination against Sikhs is. Thankfully the Court stepped in to protect Captain Singh’s constitutional rights. Now it’s time to let all Sikhs serve.”
Singh filed a federal lawsuit Monday to challenge the Army’s rule that he remove his turban and shave his beard, both of which Singh says are protected as religious expression due to his Sikh beliefs.
Singh, who led a platoon of engineers removing roadside bombs in Afghanistan, was accepted into West Point in 2006 and expected to receive an exemption for his beard. When he didn’t, he shaved but decided to fight for the exemption. The Army granted Singh a temporary exemption in December of last year that was extended until March 31. Not wanting to wait until the exemption ended and violate the rules, Singh filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Monday demanding a permanent exemption.
The Becket Fund points out that Singh is a Bronze Star recipient and that more than 100,000 soldiers have received exemptions for their beards, often for medical reasons such as acne.
“We have been advocating for the simple, straightforward, equal right to serve for years and held onto the belief that the military would correct this injustice once they realized their mistake,” Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement. “The military’s treatment of Captain Singh, a decorated soldier, makes it clear that they deliberately want to squash diversity and religious freedom in their ranks and that’s not something that any court or American should ever tolerate.” The Army created stricter rules in 1981 that include beard trimming, but three Sikhs have received exemptions since then, thought they were not combat roles.
A coalition including more than two dozen retired generals and over 100 members of Congress have publicly called for Sikhs to receive an exemption, but the Army has been slow to give these kinds of concessions.
“I am proud to fight for my country, which includes fighting to protect others’ religious beliefs,” Singh said in December after receiving the temporary accommodation. “I simply ask that I be able to continue serving without being forced to give up a core part of my own faith—of who I am.”
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